Explaining. We all have to do it. In our presentations pitching our products. In our emails explaining why the team missed a deadline. In our reasons for why we’re late to work. (Would you believe…impromptu parade?)

If you explain well, people will love you. If you explain poorly, they’ll get confused or frustrated, and if TV is correct they might throw rotten fruits and vegetables at you.

tomato throwing

You seem really nice and I don’t think rotten produce would complement your outfit, so I’m going to teach you how to explain.

Last time, I went over the first part of how to explain: knowing your audience. Now let’s get cozy with the next step: simplifying. Here are a few tips on how to keep things simple, even when you’re explaining a complex idea.

1. Use Signposts

Signposts are directions for your explanation: what you’re going to be explaining and how you’re going to explain it.

“Today I’m going to be discussing social media.”

“Now that we’ve discussed why you should grind your own coffee beans, I’ll walk you through how to do it.”

“We have three options to defeat the giant platypus monster, and I’ll discuss each in detail.”

Platypus Monster

All signposts, and all great for giving your explanation structure.

Signposts help give our brains direction, so they don’t get confused, give up, and start thinking about what they want for lunch. Signposts also help you, the explainer, focus. They force you to stay on track, so you don’t lose your train of thought in the middle of your plan to save us from the platypus monster, which makes your audience stop paying attention, so they go with the clearly flawed plan to lure the platypus monster back to the sea when he’s not even FROM the sea, dooming us all to a lifetime of serving a webbed-footed overlord. Way to go, jerk.

Where were we? Ah, the next tip:

2. Only Include Details that Really Matter

For example, maybe I could have cut that long example about the platypus monster. You should only include the basic, most essential points in your explanation. (I would argue that possible platypus world domination is very important, but whatever.)

Remember, you’re the expert, and you have a full, nuanced understanding of your topic. All the details may seem important, but to a beginner, they’re just confusing. Focus on getting your point across rather than communicating everything there is to know about your topic in one go.

Details you can cut right away:

  • Technical terminology or jargon
  • Facts that are cool, but don’t relate to your core topic
  • Any information that won’t directly affect your audience

3. Use Everyday Words

Let’s focus on that techy talk. Jargon-words that have a precise meaning to you and other people in the know, but don’t mean anything to a layperson-are one of the easiest ways to confuse your audience and lose their attention. Whenever possible, use Plain English. Even if it means your explanation is a tad less precise, your audience will actually get what you’re talking about.

To practice your Plain English, try using the Up-Goer Five Text Editor, which only lets you communicate using the ten hundred most used words. The Up-Goer Five Text Editor was inspired by this xkcd comic:

Up Goer Five

If you can explain literal rocket science (I’m sorry, “flying space car” science) using Plain English, you can definitely use it to explain your topic.

You’ve now whittled your explanation down to the bits your audience will care about most. Now all you need to do is make your message stick. I’ll show you how to make your explanation memorable in the final installment of How to Explain: Connections.

Mega tomato throwing image via Midwest Tomato Fest; Up-Goer Five image via xkcd.

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